Hawaii: Struggling growers want State to step up purchases

Two years ago, Kunia Country Farms in Central Oahu started working with the Zippy’s restaurant chain to supply lettuce and other salad greens to the company. As the farm’s founder Jason Brand tells it, the deal was a game changer for Kunia Country Farms. When Zippy’s started ordering large quantities of its salad mixes from the farm, it wasn’t just the revenue that made the difference, Brand says. It was also the security that went with having a steady, consistent buyer.

Kunia Country Farms increased its size by 45%, Brand says, investing in fields, equipment and food safety capabilities. “By knowing that we have reoccurring orders in hand, it’s easier as a business to invest or to approach a bank about financing against known revenue,” Brand said. “That’s the difference between growing by grants and growing by orders.”

Now, advocates of Hawaii agriculture say the State of Hawaii can do the same sort of thing Zippy’s did for Kunia Country Farms for farmers across the state. And, they say, it won’t cost taxpayers a dime because there already are big institutions buying lots of food: the state’s schools, prisons and hospitals.

About 46% percent of Hawaii restaurants have virtually shut down, their revenue reduced to near zero during government-imposed closures, a study conducted by state-wide business groups and the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found. That’s been a huge blow to Hawaii’s 7,300 farms, some two-thirds of which are small operations growing produce to sell locally. Overall, revenue has dropped 16.7% for Hawaii’s agriculture industry, the UHERO study found.

That probably would have been worse if growers hadn’t quickly pivoted to selling to food banks and directly to customers through newly expanded community-supported agriculture programs and online farmers’ markets.

The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation set up a “Farm to Car” program that lets people order online and pick up bags of produce at designated locations. Such programs provide short-term relief and may lead to more retail customers turning to CSAs, which let people buy regularly delivered boxes of local produce.

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